Scientists are using genomics to create high-protein soybeans and peas. Their aim? To make meat and milk substitutes that can rival the real thing.
IT ALL BEGAN with a dairy allergy. Not Matt Begemann’s, but his daughter’s. With cheeses, yogurts, and foods that “may contain traces of milk” firmly off the menu, he and his family were forced to turn to plant-based alternatives—the most popular of which are made of soybean or yellow pea. Right away, Begemann noticed that the taste, texture, and all-round satisfaction just weren’t the same as with the dairy versions. Disheartened but inspired, Begemann decided to use his skills in genetics to improve plant-based foods for his daughter so that she, and others like her, could grow up in a world of palate pleasures.
Begemann isn’t alone in his assessment of plant-based alternatives. A 2019 survey of over 1,000 German consumers found that meat-eaters thought plant-based meat substitutes had worse tastes and textures than their animal counterparts. And while plant-based meats have become more popular in recent years, interest seems to be waning: Sales were down nearly 7 percent in November 2021 from the previous year. Omnivores, it seems, just aren’t that impressed by what’s currently on offer.
That’s a big problem. The latest report released by the International Panel on Climate Change stresses the important role plant-based products will play in moving us away from animal agriculture—an industry that is responsible for roughly 20 percent of global emissions and is the leading cause of habitat loss, among other issues. The unappealing nature of plant-based products is also to some extent a side effect of animal agriculture, as crops like the soybean have been bred to favor high yields for animal feed, which has lowered their protein content over time. And protein, some scientists believe, is key to making plant-based products competitive with their animal counterparts.
“Along the way of domestication, we’ve lost a lot of that protein content, which is super important to a lot of these newer applications,” says Begemann. As the senior director of gene editing and trait discovery at Benson Hill—a food production company based in the US state of Missouri—Begemann is using genomics to help restore the natural properties of crops like the soybean to improve plant-based alternatives to meat and milk.
By analyzing the genomes of a wide variety of plants, researchers at Benson Hill (and elsewhere) have learned which plant genes are associated with traits like higher protein content. With this knowledge, they select crop species with the traits they’re looking for and cross-breed them to see which combinations will create the best future crops. When selecting for a trait like higher protein, it’s still important to maintain the properties of domestication, like yield and disease resistance.
For the soybean, the crop Benson Hill is mainly focusing on, Begemann has access to 120,000 unique plant genomes from 27 species. To collect this data, the company has grown thousands of varieties of wild and domesticated soybeans from across the globe. Through the mixing of different breeds—which currently involves no genetic engineering—Benson Hill has come up with 35 soybean variants that are actively being grown with farmers. The protein content goes up to as high as 48 percent; the industry standard is around 40 percent.
Xiong agrees that off-flavors can also be due to biological molecules found in plants. Yet when it comes to creating plant-based meat alternatives, he thinks flavor isn’t the most important thing—what’s vital is recreating the mouthfeel of animal products, like the juiciness of a burger. Exploring other crops could be a good way of finding better tastes and textures, he says. “We should not limit our imagination to just a few traditional proteins—we should explore anything possible.”
He points to the mung bean as an example and says it has a mild flavor and interesting properties, like its ability to form a gel. The food company Eat Just has successfully created a plant-based egg alternative using mung beans that has been on the market since 2018. Other companies, like Mikuna—which produces edible plant protein—are trying to introduce alternative crops, like the Andean lupin, into our diets.
Regardless of the crop involved, Meirovitch is adamant that raising the amount of protein in plant-based products is what will drive their success. “We have seen that the protein overwhelmingly dictates the taste and mouthfeel,” she says. “Of course, there are many factors that influence the taste and texture of plant-based food, but the protein makes the biggest impact by far because it’s the most prominent ingredient by volume in a plant-based burger, aside from water.” In her view, “protein is what separates a mediocre, dry, beany burger from a truly delicious and juicy meaty burger.”
For both Benson Hill and Equinom, the high-protein products they’re working on are just the beginning. Begemann says that Benson Hill plans on exploring other elements it could bolster in its ingredients, such as water-holding capacity, which could improve juiciness. Meirovitch says Equinom would even like to tackle nutrition by combining different crops, such as sesame and pea protein, to give its foods a fuller nutritional profile. If the results match the team’s aspirations, Begemann’s daughter has a lot to look forward to.
Updated 6-7-2022 12:45 pm ET: This story was updated to correct the number of Benson Hill soybean varieties being grown by farmers.